The situation of human rights in Pakistan is complex as a result of the country’s diversity, its status as a developing country and a sovereign, Islamic Republic as well as an Islamic democracy with a mixture of both Islamic and secular laws. The Constitution of Pakistan provides for fundamental rights, which include freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. However, it is debatable how much these clauses are respected in practice.
In Pakistan, nearly 1.5% of the population are Christian. Pakistani law mandates that any blasphemy is to be met with punishment. On July 28, 1994, Amnesty International urged Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto to change the law because it was being used to terrorize religious minorities. She tried, but was unsuccessful. However, she modified the laws to make them more moderate. Her changes were reversed by the Nawaz Sharif administration which was backed by religious parties when he came to power in 1997
In 2009, Asia was reaping berries with a group of other harvesters when she was asked to fetch water from a nearby well. She complied but stopped to take a drink with an old metal cup she had found lying next to the well. A neighbor of Asia, saw her and angrily told her that it was forbidden for a Christian to drink water from the same utensil from which Muslims drink, and some of the other workers considered her to be unclean because she was a Christian. Some arguments ensued. Asia recounts that when they made pejorative statements about her religion, she retorted, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind”
Later, some of the workers complained to a cleric that Asia insulted Muhammad. The police initiated an investigation about her remarks, resulting in her arrest under Section 295 C of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Bibi was convicted and sentenced to hang in 2010 after an argument. Her supporters maintain her innocence and insist it was a personal dispute and she had no intention to hurl any insults either on Islam or its Prophet Mohammed.
But successive appeals have been rejected, and if the Supreme Court bench upholds Bibi’s conviction, her only recourse will be a direct appeal to the president for clemency.
She would become the first person in Pakistan to be executed for blasphemy. The repercussions for minorities, human rights and the blasphemy laws will be tremendous if that happens, says Shahzad Akbar, a human rights lawyer.
Observers have warned of possible violence if the conviction is overturned, with some calling the case a battle for Pakistan’s soul as the State walks a line between upholding human rights and appeasing hardliners.
The “Shuhada Foundation,” which was formed after the security forces raided the Lal Masjid in 2007, said its supporters would take to the streets and will not allow the government to function if Asia was released. “Lal Masjid will become a center for the anti-government movement if Asia is released,” the foundation said.
In 2011, former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who spoke out in support of Aasia, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad.
Speaking to the media, Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook claimed that he has been receiving threats and hoped that the government would take it seriously.
Following the court’s decision, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, counsel for the complainant against Aasia Bibi said, “We are not pressuring the court, we are ready to accept the court’s decision.”
Some insist it is not just a fight for one life, but a battle for the nation’s soul as the State walks a razor-sharp line between upholding human rights and appeasing populist religious hardliners. Her husband has already written to Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain to seek permission to move her to France. Bibi’s family have lived largely in seclusion since 2010, fearing they will be mistreated if they venture out into the brimming streets of Lahore.
Liberal Muslims are working and speaking on public forums in order to save Asia but on the other hand, nearly all of the religious organizations and leaders are against them on this issue. The Constitution of Pakistan provides a right for freedom of religion to everyone, and Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah never envisaged a theocracy. He saw Pakistan a republic where all would be free to go to their mosques, churches and temples. In order to promote peace and keeping in view the rights of minorities, Pakistanis must stand united for a life that could go waste for a crime that never was committed. The nation must choose between an atmosphere of hatred and fear, and liberties and progress. The latter one cannot be possible if social and political persecution continues in the name of religion.